Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

They agreed to listen to a complaint about a paper. Then the harassment began.

with 16 comments

We receive our fair share of tips, and most are well-intentioned attempts to clean up the scientific literature. However, sometimes would-be critics can veer into personal attacks. As chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics, Virginia Barbour has seen a lot. But nothing quite prepared her for being cyberbullied by someone the organisation had agreed to listen to when they raised a complaint about a published paper. In this guest post, Barbour tells the story of how COPE’s attempts to assist led to hundreds of harassing emails and unfounded accusations of a cover-up, which the complainant spread indiscriminately.

By its very nature, publication and research ethics often includes issues that are hard to resolve and it’s not uncommon for journals to receive  concerns from individuals about specific papers. COPE has guidance for its members on what to do when they are contacted by such individuals. We urge and support editors and publishers in taking issues raised seriously. Nonetheless, such individuals (whether anonymous or not) can experience difficulties in getting their cases heard and, in rare and unusual cases, face extreme measures to silence them.

At COPE, we therefore also have a mechanism whereby readers can raise concerns about an issue in a COPE member journal, if the journal and publisher have not been able to resolve the issue. We have devoted increasing resources to this mechanism, even though is not the primary reason for which COPE was set up. As a membership organisation, COPE does not have regulatory authority over journals or publishers, but we can review the process the journal or publisher followed to determine if best practice was followed.

Therefore, when we received an email in 2015 from a reader with a complaint about a published paper, we reviewed the initial correspondence and, as it appeared to be a legitimate issue, opened a file on the case and assigned council members to work on it according to our procedures.

Over the course of the next year as we worked to address the issue, we received at least 300 emails from the complainant, which — although superficially polite — became increasingly odd, including accusing us of being part of a “cover up.”

The emails to COPE were, it turned out, the least of our issues. While the case was being reviewed by COPE, several council members and staff, including (and especially) me, had cases filed against them by the complainant to their employers or other organisations. In my case, at least five organisations were contacted. Any individuals or organisations that declined to be drawn in were themselves then accused of being part of the “cover up,” and in turn had complaints raised against them.

Despite repeatedly indicating that we were handling the case, the emails continued and we were finally and regretfully forced to divert the emails to our lawyer and to cease direct communication with the complainant.

The complainant’s emails continued nonetheless (and still continue), becoming increasingly bizarre and scattergun. For example, a completely unrelated individual with the same surname as me was assumed to be my husband, and was accused of being part of the “cover up.” In another exchange, which gives a flavor of the type of email being sent, the complainant demanded in an email chain to a university administrator that if Dr X (a female senior academic that the complainant had contacted about me) would not sack me that “I would therefore like to ask you to contact the husband of Dr X and tell the husband of Dr X that he must order his wife that she must sack immediately Dr Virginia Barbour. It is of course no problem at all to contact another male relative (dad / oldest son / son of a brother of her dad, etc.) in case Dr X has no husband.”

Faced with our refusal to engage on his terms, the complainant turned to social media and the allegations of a cover up appeared in a number of places—for example on comment threads on unrelated blogs.

Our response was twofold.

First, in regard to the case that the complainant had brought to us, we had been in contact from the very beginning with the publisher and their representatives, as well as with reputable scientists who had legitimate concerns. We took steps to confirm that the allegations raised were being appropriately investigated by the journal and the publisher.

Second, with regard to the complainant’s emails, once we had decided to only conduct correspondence with him via our lawyer, we simply ignored other emails to us and only responded if clarification was needed to other professional colleagues.

What value is there in publicizing the case now?

At the time of writing, the harassment of COPE council members and others continues and we intend this to be a public record of the incident.

Furthermore, by speaking out we hope to engage a wider debate on creating the academic web we want. This individual, is, sadly, not unique in the methods he employs. The Guardian’s campaign for “The web we want,” about combating online abuse, is an important initiative that needs to be translated to the academic sphere, where too often this type of behavior seems to be tolerated, or at least not addressed head on. Speaking up to support others is fraught with the risk that the attention of the individual will be turned on them (as happened here), a classic pattern in what is, essentially, bullying.

But some of the behavior went far beyond bullying. The repeated false accusations of participation in a cover up were potentially libellous; the combing over of mine and other colleagues’ affiliations and systematic targeting of our outside colleagues felt like harassment and stalking.

Lastly, it is important to highlight what this meant for COPE’s aims as an organisation — to ensure the integrity of the published literature. The individual concerned apparently wanted to cast doubts on the organization and its members (past and present) and, perhaps, its wider purpose. We see other individuals doing the same: Despite all their comments, these individuals are quick to criticize but rarely (if ever) are willing to put the time in to offer — let alone implement — constructive solutions.

COPE, by contrast, aims collectively and individually to practically address the problems that occur in publication and research integrity in a rigorous and professional way. Yet we are increasingly witnessing that an acknowledgement by authors or journals of a mistake and a subsequent correction is not seen to be enough. Vilifying authors or editors with public humiliation – driven often by a crowd mentality — seems to be what some in this arena want. As one tweeter said (hopefully ironically)– a “public lashing” may even be expected. We strongly refute this way of thinking. With such a climate it is hard to see how we could ever develop a culture of no blame correction, which is a prerequisite for a reliable published record.

We are in a tumultuous time in publishing. The way we publish and what the academic literature looks like and how it is critiqued ­pre and post publication­ will be very different in the next few years, and that’s only to be encouraged. What we can’t do is allow this change to be accompanied by a race to the bottom in the behavior that we accept. We need to build the academic web we want.

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Written by Alison McCook

March 23rd, 2017 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

  • Z March 23, 2017 at 2:34 pm

    This is an extreme example of sadly common in behavior in academic disputes. The correct response is to report harassment and extortion up to and including making criminal complaints and not to grant someone anonymity that allows them to do this without leaving a paper (and digital) trail. Sometimes, people like this will stop harassing you if ignored, but even in that best possible case you’re likely not the last victim.

    Many victims of harassment in academia justifiably fear their careers are too fragile to justify the possible fallout from an appropriately aggressive response, but that’s not the case here. Many are afraid of intervening when they suspect underlying mental health issues are at play, but that sympathy shouldn’t outweigh protecting yourself and others from harassment.

  • rfg March 23, 2017 at 3:22 pm

    This is an interesting case. It appears to reverse the usual pattern.

    It is usually the whistleblower who is harassed. Typically, this takes the form of pressure on the whistleblower to withdraw an ethical complaint about a paper, grant application or other scientific communication.

    The pressure can come in the form of threats and character assassination. It’s usually done by the person or persons accused of the misconduct and/or in some cases by administrators at the institution of the accused.

    In my experience as a whistleblower the harassment has taken the form of accusations (all unfounded) against me and my team of:

    1. scientific misconduct (lack of ethical approvals)
    2. mismanaging grant funds
    3. breaking patient confidentially
    4. building a facility that put patients at risk
    5. alarmism (overstating a biothreat)
    6. bioterrorism
    7. personal/professional misconduct
    8. harassment

    The accusations have been made on the web, to reporters, journal editors and others in my field, but also to NIH, DoD, DoS, my Provost and Dean.

    The case involving a 2012 paper is still open.

    My sympathies to COPE administrators. It is indeed no fun to be harassed.

    It would be of interest to know more about this case.

    • Z March 23, 2017 at 3:49 pm

      Have you considered seeking a restraining order after ~5 years of harassment?

  • Nick March 23, 2017 at 3:39 pm

    …and now you think why many of us are kept silent for life. Even innocent “please remove my name from the co-author list” leads to a long-lasting hostility in our current academic environment, not talking about reporting a “perceived” misconduct. Simple frank and open discussion should have prevented it, but it is something which evaporated long ago: now you are either “in” or “out”. “Out” means “GO” elsewhere.

    • rfg March 25, 2017 at 9:54 am

      Yet another example of the not uncommon plight of a whistleblower is currently heading the RW list of articles.

      I think the attacks similar to those on whistleblower Karl-Henrik Grinnemo from the superstar researcher and his institution are a lot more frequent than see the light of day.

  • rfg March 23, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    “COPE, by contrast, aims collectively and individually to practically address the problems that occur in publication and research integrity in a rigorous and professional way. Yet we are increasingly witnessing that an acknowledgement by authors or journals of a mistake and a subsequent correction is not seen to be enough. Vilifying authors or editors with public humiliation – driven often by a crowd mentality — seems to be what some in this arena want. As one tweeter said (hopefully ironically)– a “public lashing” may even be expected. We strongly refute this way of thinking. With such a climate it is hard to see how we could ever develop a culture of no blame correction, which is a prerequisite for a reliable published record.”

    I generally agree with this sentiment. Correcting an honest mistake should be encouraged and come without a “public lashing.” I’d go farther and say that scientists who aggressively correct their own mistakes in the literature should be applauded. RW has highlighted a few instances of this honorable self-correcting behavior. In my experience I not aware of [any] cases where scientist who correct their own honest error are publicly vilified, though I don’t doubt that this could happen.

    However, there are cases where published corrections are not adequate and may in fact be “cover-ups.” There are also high profile examples (one in Science last year).

    A balance must be struck that allows for “no blame correction” of honest error, along with strong disincentives for actual scientific misconduct and protection for whistleblowers.

    • Derek Pyne March 24, 2017 at 3:45 am

      I would just like to respond to your statement “In my experience I not aware of [any] cases where scientist who correct their own honest error are publicly vilified, though I don’t doubt that this could happen”.
      I believe that one case involves Reinhart and Rogoff’s well known mistake on their ‘famous’ paper and debt and economic growth. The mistake was only revealed because they made their spreadsheets and other resources freely available to a graduate student who was trying to replicate their results. Once the grad student discovered they had made a coding mistake, they verified it and publicly agreed that they had made a mistake. In other words, they followed best practice. Yet, many with a political axe to grind, wrote opinion articles in the media attaching them. At my own university, a political science professor made fun of the whole idea that it had been a honest mistake.

      • TL March 24, 2017 at 5:19 am

        When you consider that the paper in question was used by right-wing policy makers as an intellectual basis for years of austerity politics that was inflicted on people in the US, UK and other places, you can’t really be surprised that people didn’t accept a simple “oops”.

        • Derek Pyne March 24, 2017 at 9:08 am

          Your post makes my point for me. Thanks.

      • Marco March 24, 2017 at 6:22 am

        Yes, they publicly acknowledged an error, but they also defended all other things they did and with which others disagree (see e.g. That is their scientific prerogative, but it would be false to claim they are still being publicly villified for correcting (or rather, acknowledging) their own honest mistake. They are not. Their paper is still subject to a robust scientific debate about the various choices they made and the apparently overgeneralised conclusions they drew.

  • imohacsi March 23, 2017 at 5:58 pm

    Perhaps when the whistleblowers are kept in the dark, they get anxious. Many of them think that retraction will come within a week or two. When things get delayed or the authors can get away with major corrections of obvious forgery (image duplication/manipulation) they rightfully feel cheated. Unfortunately noone else, than the whistleblower is interested to see the paper retracted.

  • Geordie March 23, 2017 at 8:00 pm

    I think what the article describes is not bullying, nor is it simple harassment, the word bizarre is used and indeed it is. Someone going to these extremes is not simply trying to get at someone, it sounds as if their whole world is disintegrating, sadly it is appropriate that lawyers or if possible the police should manage this sort of thing. This is something not specific to research, academics involved in teaching sometimes face similar problems.
    However this is not a reason to protect academics from the consequences of what they do, in fact researchers often escape all responsibility for what the produce, something few other workers can expect.
    I think honest mistakes shouldn’t be a problem and self correction applauded but its becoming increasingly obvious that fraud and dishonesty are common in science publication and its often simply ignored by the bodies who should be policing these things. If it wasn’t for the public exposure of these things I suspect the current movements to improve research standards wouldn’t even have started

    • Z March 24, 2017 at 5:56 am

      In my experience this type of behavior may not indicate that someone’s world disintegrating, but that they’re trying to give you that impression in order to intimidate you into not reporting their misconduct. It’s a tactic honed over a lifetime to bully others into giving you what you want and then hoping you go away and pick a new target.

      Yes, someone that feigns some kind of psychosis in order to get their way is probably not a particularly well functioning social person, but regardless of any underlying mental health issues the right thing to do is to take their accusations seriously and, if they turn out to be lies, take appropriate actions to report criminal and professional misconduct. Concern for mental health is good, but the absolute worst thing you can do is enable destructive behavior by rewarding it.

  • Paul Brookes March 24, 2017 at 8:37 am

    I’ve written about COPE before (TL/DR: I think it’s a toothless pay-to-play vanity club for publishers… ) so let’s discuss the possibility this extreme case may be partly due to their failure to act in a timely manner. When you set yourself up as gatekeeper of scientific integrity and then leave the gates unattended, you can expect some flak!

    Granted, this case is clearly out-and-out harassment, but let’s not paint COPE as a panacea of goodness here. There are concrete steps they can take to improve the situation. Maybe they can admit that “we’re working on it” is not a very satisfactory answer (and becomes less so as the months/years drag on). Maybe take a less passive stance toward their member journals: toughen-up with universal requirments for members (salaried ethics investigators at every publisher, strict rules on turnaround times for cases, time limits for authors to provide original data, standardized language for retractions and a ban on the phrase “this does not affect our conclusions” in paper corrections). All of these efforts would decrease the frustration that can trigger this type of event. It would be expensive, but last time I looked the publishing industry was not starved for profits.

    • rfg March 25, 2017 at 10:23 am

      I for one would be in favor of giving COPE or if not COPE another organization some teeth.

      A watchdog with fangs is exactly what is needed, especially in the current climate where science is under attack on many fronts.

      This is not to discount the important work of Retraction Watch, PubPeer, PubMed Commons and an increasing number of blogs that should make those who commit scientific misconduct very uncomfortable.

      In the US the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) is likewise often criticized as having not enough teeth. Indeed, they depend on the Institution of the accused to do the investigation. It’s obvious that in many cases the Institution judges that it is more important to protect their own best interests (for example indirect costs on grants) than to correct the scientific literature or protect scientific integrity. The Ohio State case recently covered by the NYTimes is instructive. ORI needs to directly investigate cases at the first sign that the Institutional Research Integrity office is compromising or obstructing a legitimate instance of possible misconduct.

      Even if ORI were suddenly to be given the legal and monetary resources it needs this would not fix international scientific misconduct.

      I also agree that the biggest challenge for a whistleblower is time. The longer the case can be drawn out the more likely the whistleblower will just move on. Persist after years of delay and obstruction and the whistleblower will be charged with harassment.

      COPE could help by putting time certain guidance on there flowsheets.

  • LV March 26, 2017 at 12:51 pm

    I would suggest that we’re already at the bottom, or close to it, with the current proportion of the scientific literature that’s reproducible in any way. When journals sit on or otherwise drag out legitimate complaints for years, even when the cases are as clear-cut as relabeling and republishing of other scientists’ published figures as new data, they (the COPE constituency) have become the problem. I have no information on the case at hand (nor do many others, it seems), and we haven’t heard the other side of the story, but behavior like what’s described is reprehensible, especially the ugly sexism and conspiracy theory angles. I suspect, though, that this is not how most whistleblowers act.

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